When Computer Animation Stopped Being Exciting For Me

Days have passed. A lot of the recent, unfortunate news concerning Pixar has somewhat blown over, though many fans – such as myself – are still in some state of mental disarray. A rumor concerning John Lasseter’s actual exit from The Walt Disney Company as a whole – leaving the top chairs vacant at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the often-overlooked Disneytoon Studios vacant – has popped up, assuaging some worries, but knowing how these corporations work, we can’t get our hopes up too high just yet. I’ve been thinking a lot about Pixar in general.

One of the main things that’s been swirling through my head is the now incredibly-apparent parallels between some of Pixar’s antagonists and Lasseter himself. I’ve also been thinking about my life as a Pixar fan, and remembered how – at one point in my life – I was actually very excited about computer animation and where it was heading. There was a point in my life where I was actually in love with that form of animation. I didn’t fetishize it the way virtually every American animation executive did, but I saw a lot of value in it.

Nowadays, I’m just not all that big on CGI. More appropriately, I’m not big on the kind of CGI that almost all the big studios employ… That quasi-photoreal look. Despite the character designs and art direction, what you’re seeing looks almost like a carbon copy of real life. Essentially “live-action cartoons.” Why can’t cartoons and animated features be – unabashedly – cartoons and animated features?

This has always been Pixar’s aesthetic, ever since the mid-1980s. When it’s everybody’s style, it’s boring. This is why I’m grateful for the recent “outliers” pictured below…

Yet I don’t mind that Pixar continues to make films with this overall look, Coco is no exception. Despite my reservations, it’s still a gorgeous film with an amazing portrayal of the Land of the Dead, its inhabitants, and several other elements. Pixar is like computer animation’s Rembrandt, many of the other studios are imitating that. I argue that the divisive visual look of The Good Dinosaur was a subtle jab at this direction in CGI. The artisans created what were perhaps the most photorealistic backgrounds ever, with many scenes putting the picture on par with big epics… Then filled that world with the cartooniest-looking dinosaurs.

While many found that contrast to be a dealbreaker, I was more amused! Either this was a failed attempt at making an epic, realistic dinosaur “cartoon,” or the art department on The Good Dinosaur wanted to poke at this sort-of insistence that mainstream feature animation HAS to look like live-action.

It’s been a sorry trend since the late 1990s, after the runaway success of Toy Story. DreamWorks would be the second American animation enterprise to do a CGI feature, at the time their computer-animated movies would be provided by the sadly defunct pioneering studio Pacific Data Images. Then after years of commercials and an award-winning short, Blue Sky got into it. Then Sony, you know the deal! Computer animation was the rage in the late 1990s and early aughts, executives carelessly killed feature-length traditional animation in their quest for the “ultimate” form of animation. Terrible, gimmicky, by-the-numbers product like Shark Tale and Chicken Little were successful at the box office because back then, almost anything computer animated was a surefire hit.

Yet, I always thought that computer animation’s biggest strengths weren’t even in the photorealism department. Staging and lighting, I think, are CGI’s biggest upsides. When used for traditional animation, you got incredible sequences like the ballroom dance in Beauty and the Beast, the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, and pretty much all of Tarzan. Treasure Planet gave us a look at what could’ve been, had Disney’s and DreamWorks’ executives not turned against the art of hand-drawn moving images.

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When I was young and when I had determined my animated future, Pixar’s films continued to impress me visually. I became a full-fledged fan of Pixar in 2002, when I got Monsters, Inc. on DVD. I spun that disc day after day, I watched the film and the very comprehensive bonus features (it was a 2-disc set, kids) religiously. Soon, I went back and watched the other Pixar films that I so needed to re-watch. I caught on to the advancements made in-between each feature. A Bug’s Life‘s scale and water, Toy Story 2‘s sharper-looking humans and bigger locations, Monsters, Inc.‘s fur, details, and sets. I watched whatever shorts I had on hand at the time, mainly Luxo, Jr. from my Toy Story 2 VHS and Knick Knack from the Finding Nemo DVD. All incredibly impressive!

Finding Nemo completely blew me away… Entirely set underwater! This big seabed odyssey! The better human animation! I sometimes feel that Finding Nemo‘s human animation is a step above what we saw before, though still a few clicks away from what we would see next year. Sometimes, you’ll hear people talk about how The Incredibles introduced the definitive CGI humans. It certainly did, but I often feel that Finding Nemo was the missing link between it and the earlier films from all the studios. Anyways, that film is still gorgeous to this day. In fact, it was a little hard for me to find the improvements in its sequel, Finding Dory. You could tell some things were smoother, and the human work is of course leagues ahead of where we were back in 2003, but on the whole? Finding Nemo still looks just as amazing, and it was 13 years old by the time Finding Dory was completed.

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The teaser for Incredibles 2 has only been out for what, a few weeks? Already, lots of comments on how improved and sharper the animation is. It definitely is! Jack-Jack and Bob Parr look great and move nicely in the spot, yes there’s that shirt detail on Bob, but… Other than that? I wasn’t blown away…

For a little while, I thought about how Pixar films continued to impress me in the tech department… Until they didn’t.

The Incredibles seemed like everything Pixar had learned up until that point: Water, humans, fabric, sets, environments, effects, everything. So advanced for 2004, for sure. Cars managed to impress me in different ways. Not as massive as The Incredibles was in size and scope, but the crowds, all that metal and chrome, how these vehicles were brought to life. Ratatouille, in some areas, got me. Not as much as the previous few films, but I was struck by just how fancy and nice everything appeared… And how appetizing all that food looked!

WALL-E, perhaps, was the end of that… That was literally their final frontier. A planet covered entirely in trash, buildings made out of trash cubes, an intergalactic cruise ship where the inhabitants are bombarded with flashing ads and graphics, just WOW!

Then Up came out. From that point onward, it wasn’t really about the tech, the realism, and – in some instances – the scope anymore. Computer animation got there with WALL-E, the peak had been hit.

So… Up… What did it have to offer besides a storyline that wrecked me? I took note of its more caricatured and abstract look. Carl, Ellie, Russell, and Muntz looked unlike many previous Pixar humans. They looked even more abstract than what we saw in other CGI films at the time. I remember it being a problem for some folk back then, too! I dug it, it was different-looking.

Toy Story 3‘s bold use of color and human designs were what got me, not the photorealism or the size of the sets. That incinerator fire, too! Cars 2 didn’t have much in the way of new visual tricks, but was a very pretty film nonetheless. I remember being a little wowed when I read about how big the London set was for the film. Stuff on that level continues to fascinate me. Brave had some great hair work, and more exaggerated human designs. Monsters University got super-realistic, in parts it kind of shocked me, same with its accompanying short The Blue Umbrella.

Inside Out? Again, wasn’t there for the realism or staggering things. I much appreciated its glowing, vibrant art direction, quirky character design, and its great surreal moments. Finding Dory and Cars 3 were pretty films, the former’s Hank is a masterclass in character animation in CGI. Coco‘s Land of the Dead kind of struck me a little, just how it was depicted and such.

Nowadays, I get more amusement out of the color choices and lighting than I do the photorealism or that overall look of their films. Character animation itself tends to wow me more than “look at how real that looks!” With how traditional animation continues to be treated in North America’s feature animation industry, and the struggles of stop-motion features, I’ve just become rather bored of the hyper-real CGI. In ways, we are kind of defeating the purpose of animation. Animation’s greatest quality is not that it can bring things to life that live-action can’t, it’s that it ISN’T real life.

Those hand-painted backgrounds and details in all the classic Disney animated features, that’s the draw! Why do we love paintings so much? It’s because they’re otherworldly depictions of real life! The animation style of the old Warner Bros. cartoons fits the mayhem and comedy perfectly, in ways a live-action slapstick comedy will never have. To say nothing of the UPA’s bold, abstract outlook on animation during the late 1940s and early 1950s. What’s the point of seeing an animated movie if all you’re seeing is fabricated live-action? Live-action movies now normally use photorealistic animation to supply things that couldn’t have been integrated subtly prior to, say, the early 1990s. A movie like Life of Pi would looked much different if it were made in 1987, ditto Avatar, The Jungle Book 2016, any Marvel Cinematic Universe film, you name it. Heck, so many people can’t stand CGI in live-action movies and clamor for more practical effects!

So, why not let animation be animation for once? TV animation is often more thrilling than most feature animation because of this, ditto European animation, independent films, and various works of anime. This year in general really left me wanting, and when re-watching Bambi back in August, I was reminded of why I love animation so much and what is so special about the medium.

The computer is a tool, as is a pencil. Why not use the digital box to think out of the box? When I see films like The Book of Life and Captain Underpants, I get a little excited. When I see short films and projects from up-and-coming studios like TAIKO and Reel FX, I have some hope that one day, we’ll get away from this current style of CGI that dominates.

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